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Book Review: 'How Brands Grow' by Byron Sharp

Get your copy here: Byron Sharp is a professor of marketing sciences at The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, the world's largest centre for research into marketing. Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow challenges the conventional beliefs about marketing. He suggests that much of what is learned in ‘traditional’ marketing degrees is just theory. Applying rigorous research methodologies, considering a large variety of categories from like FMCG, finance, banking, airlines and so on, he simplifies marketing principles to a definitive 7 rules of brand growth, and a range of laws.

In a world teeming with short-termism and short tenures for marketers, recognising the true value of a brand is becoming a forgotten battle. Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow is a seminal book on guiding marketers to think about the value of a brand, revealing fundamental insights on what a brand is, how brands grow, how advertising actually works, what price promotions do, what loyalty programs do and so on. Sharp’s book is based on decades of marketing research explaining all the contextual gaps that marketers overlook. It presents a range of brand laws, based on decades of solid research, helping marketers understand the essential principles of how brands grow. The book overrides conventional myths and misinformation parading the world of marketing with evidence-based insights, flipping marketers’ perspective on how to actually grow the brand. It has thus become a global bestseller, and a seminal book in marketing boardrooms worldwide.

Sharp’s How Brands Grow simplifies the real challenge of growing a brand comes down to one thing: availability: mental availability and physical availability. He suggests that brand consideration is not so much ‘considered’. Or that being mentally available, as a brand, when a consumer is shopping your category is not as complicated as marketers had thought in the past. He goes on to explain his case by recognising original literature from the psychology of shopping. He points out that marketers like to think that people put a great deal of thought into purchasing a product than they actually do. Sharp also suggests that complicated marketing exercises and frameworks like market segmentation, brand differentiation, brand personality, brand essence and so on are mostly wasted efforts. Because most decisions are emotional, and that marketers should therefore focus on creating and managing simple and consistent brand assets that are easy to remember, and when seen, trigger instinctual responses.

Sharp’s How Brands Grow makes a compelling case against the need for differentiation, a conventional marketing practice. Sharp argues that the concept of positioning, which determines the place a brand should occupy in the consumer’s mind relative to the competition. This is often based on which functional benefit in a given category is most valued by customers and least dominated by competitor brands. And that since most consumers buy emotionally, they don’t see brands as having a difference or that difference actually matters when buying them. 

Instead, Sharp’s How Brands Grow introduces the premise that marketers should focus on creating distinctiveness, not differentiation. Be distinct, be distinct, be distinct is his mantra. So instead of focusing on differentiating and creating meaning in consumers' lives, Sharp believes a focus on creating and managing simple, memorable, consistent brand assets — like logo, tagline, jingle, color, packaging etc. — over time will allow the brand to come front-of-mind when a consumer is shipping that category. He calls this mental availability.

One of the central tenets of Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow is premised on the idea that brands grow primarily through penetration, not loyalty. This challenges the long-held belief that loyalty determines brand growth. The notion of penetration drives brand growth is so fundamental, it goes directly against conventional marketing wisdom. Sharp goes on to defy the usual beliefs by showing that brand loyalty is a myth. He argues that most consumers are promiscuous in the choices about what brands they choose. Like 70% of Coke buyers also buy Pepsi. That despite the best efforts to segment and target different brands more often than not end up sharing customer bases. Sharp clarifies that belief that loyalty such as 20% of customers represent 80% of your sales is a myth. Instead, he suggests, after researching category after category, that the number never gets higher than 50/20. Which means that unless you’re blessed with unlimited marketing budgets, attracting new customers is a far more effective way to grow the brand rather than hoping to increase purchase frequency by having existing customers buy more. 

Sharp also points out that price promotions will lead to an immediate peak in sales, but have little or no impact on long-term sales or brand growth. Again, a case of going directly against conventional marketing beliefs. And like price promotions, Sharp demonstrates how a big but short-term burst of advertising will sometimes drive short term sales but not have an impact on long-term brand growth. Instead, he suggests that brands should continuously keep reaching all buyers within the brand’s category. By being always-on, the brand can achieve salience, keeping the brand top-of-mind, especially when it comes to time of purchase. 

Besides mental availability, Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow also insists with equal focus, that marketers should think about physical availability. Like all the mental availability means nothing if you’re not available physically to buy when your customers are ready to buy it. This doesn't just mean retail outlets and physical distribution, but also digital and online channels where customers can access the products. 

Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow reveals some 7 rules for brand growth, which is now common knowledge for marketers worldwide. They are: 1) Continuously reach all buyers of the category. Both communication and distribution. Don’t ever be silent. 2) Ensure the brand is easy to buy. Communicate how it fits with the user’s life. 3) Get noticed. Grab attention and focus on brand salience to prime the user’s mind. 4) Refresh and rebuild memory structures. Respect existing associations that make the brand easy to notice and easy to buy. 5) Create and use distinctive brand assets. These are sensory cues that get noticed and stay top of mind. 6) Be consistent. Avoid unnecessary changes, while keeping the brand fresh and interesting. 7) Stay competitive. Keep the brand easy to buy and avoid giving excuses not to buy.

In addition, Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow also explores a variety of laws and principles. Like Double Jeopardy Law, which suggests that small brands have fewer customers and lower loyalty. Retention Double Jeopardy Law, which suggests that the smaller the brand, the more effort it takes to retain customers due to limited resource and visibility. Pareto Law (80/20 Rule), which suggests that a maximum of 50% of a brand’s sales comes from the top 20% of buyers. Law of Buyer Moderation, which suggests that people’s purchasing patterns and behaviors tend to normalize over time. Natural Monopoly Law, which suggests that larger brands tend to attract more casual, occasional buyers. Customer bases hardly vary, which suggests that brands don’t have distinctive buyer personality types. Attitudes reflect behavioural loyalty, which suggests that people think more about the brands they use frequently. Usage drives attitude, which suggests that the attitudes of buyers reflect their loyalty to a brand. Duplication of Purchase Law, which suggests that customers of a brand also buy from competitors. Relationship between physical availability and market share, which suggest that generally you need to have wider availability to have a bigger market share. NBD-Dirichlet Model, which suggests that  all brands have many infrequent buyers who collectively contribute to sales.

Trying to understand the principles of how brands grow is now more important than ever, especially with the explosion of categories, number of brands, the fragmentation of the media landscape, and the channels through which they operate. However, conventional wisdom holds the reins in the world of marketing. Sharp’s How Brands Grow challenges long-held truths with ground-breaking research, helping both seasoned and new generation marketers gain the original insights on how brands actually grow. This book offers marketers the basis to challenge long-held myths and assumptions and focus on strategies that actually help brands grow. The book is essentially business read for anyone seeking to understand the fundamentals of how to drive brand growth. Get your copy here:

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